Building a better band-aid

 student story

Student innovators create a bandage that comes unstuck in ultraviolet light. They’re taking their ouch-less idea to CES. 

By Eddie Kerekes 

Think about ripping off a bandage. You're already saying "Ouch," right? Now imagine what that feels like to a baby or the elderly, people with sensitive skin. Peeling off bandages can lead to not only pain but torn skin and reopened wounds. 

Two Case students think they have a gentler idea. 

Zhe Ren and Donghui Li, both doctoral candidates in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, devised an adhesive bandage that removes easily after being treated with ultraviolet (UV) light. The duo’s idea won Lumen Polymer, the name of their company, the Best Student Startup Group award at the Innovation ShowCASE during 2018 Homecoming Weekend. 

The award was gratifying, Ren said, but so was the high traffic to their exhibit. 

“During the ShowCASE period, our project attracted quite a lot of attention,” he said. “Some alumni seemed very interested and even showed their willingness for future collaborations.” 

Now the classmates getting ready to display their innovation on a bigger stage. 

Ren and Li are taking Lumen Polymer to CES 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada, in early January. They will join other Case innovators—12 teams in all—and display their work at the world’s largest consumer electronics show. 

According to Bob Sopko, Director of CWRU LaunchNET, more than 170,000 people from about 150 countries will stream through the convention. He said Lumen Polymer will have the chance to impress doctors representing firms that could be potential investors. 

Sopko added that Ren and Li might have the chance to talk with Chinese media as well, and reach an international market. student story

He said he’s excited about their idea, especially after sharing it with a doctor who found it sensible. 

“If you have the ability to safely remove an adhesive, that has tremendous potential,” Sopko said. 

From idea to product 

Li wanted to answer a simple question: Is there a better way to make use of photoresponsive properties? 

He uses a specific chromophore in his photoresponsive polymer synthesis experiments at Case and thought perhaps that it could work with switchable adhesion. Switchable adhesion is a process by which a material’s stickiness can be turned on and off using different disturbances. 

In general, the material can be responsive to changes in light, temperature or magnetic fields. Ren explained that the team chose a light sensitive response because it is relatively harmless and easily applicable to their problem. 

The pair approached the problem in three steps. First, they applied their knowledge of switchable adhesion. Second, they identified which disturbance would be used to activate the switch of the adhesion. Finally, the team identified which chromophore to add to the polymer that would reflect the right amount and wavelength of light. 

The structure of the polymer itself changes, leading to the change in stickiness. Finally, they found some funding for their research through the Student Project Fund at Sears think[box]. Two weeks later, they presented the concept at the Innovation ShowCASE sponsored by the Case Alumni Association. 

While there, representatives from hospitals in the U.S. and Canada visited the team’s booth. Nurses who have to take off bandages dozens of times a day were especially interested. Alumni from large chemical companies also visited the pair, as well as a professor from a school of medicine in New York. 

“[They] gave us some practical suggestions because they have come across these adhesive issues nearly every day, even though they have very expensive tape on the market,” said Ren. “They’re really excited.” 

The bandage they designed uses a three-layer structure. The top layer protects the bandage from the UV waves in the light coming from the sun and is removed before UV light is applied to the bandage for removal. The layer has an addition of titanium oxide particles to scatter the light before it reaches the light-sensitive layer. The center layer is the adhesive combined with the photoresponsive materials. Finally, the bottom layer is an adhesive attached to the skin. 

From China to Case 

Both Ren and Li are international students from China. Ren received both his bachelor's degree and master’s degree from Tianjin University in northeastern China and Li earned his master’s degree from the University of Akron after coming over from China in 2013. 

Ren appreciates all of the experiences Case has provided in leading him to become a motivated researcher. He credited the school’s “excellent faculty” and staff willing and capable to help, accredited courses mixed with up-to-date knowledge and interactions, and extracurricular activities that support cultural diversity. 

The fact that both Li and Ren are international students poses the greatest challenge to the development of their product. Because their visas only cover student status, they are unable to launch a company. However, that has not stopped them from filing for a provisional patent, with help from the IP Venture Clinic at the CWRU School of Law. 

The aspiring entrepreneurs also received guidance from Mike Allan, a senior licensing manager at the Office of Research and Technology Management. Gary Wnek, PhD, the Joseph F. Toot Jr. Professor of Engineering in the Macromolecular Science and Engineering Department, helped find them lab space to synthesize the polymer. 

They see their innovation doing more than helping heal wounds. Mindy Baierl, the executive director of the Masters of Engineering and Management program, suggested to Li and Ren that they could use the UV-aided separation on stickers, especially for promotional items. They also are considering putting the tape on delicate silicon wafers 

“If you want to peel tape from those wafers, it’s probably very hard because of the large peeling force, and this tech can definitely help to protect the whole electronic stuff,” said Ren. “I do believe this innovation can have a broader interest to various fields.” 

Still, he said, they won’t lose sight of their original purpose: Helping improve lives. 

“Our goal is to try and make use of this technology to help people live a better life and have a better medical treatment experience,” Li said. 

To help the Case Alumni Association support student research and product development, contact Ryan.Strine@casealum.org.